By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – Of all decisions Aquino made in his first week, it is “his cabinet appointments that raised more questions than hope,” said Renato Reyes Jr., secretary general of Bayan (New Patriotic Alliance). “The cabinet appointments are a reflection of the policy direction the new administration will take. Some of the appointments don’t give much hope for change.”
“The cabinet that he has formed recycles old faces – former Arroyo officials who will now occupy key positions – with new ones particularly in the justice post basically providing the embellishment of token reform,” said a CENPEG analysis of the new president’s administration.
Except for the new Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, many of the Aquino cabinet appointees are either representatives or members of big businesses and landed elite, or, as Terry Ridon, national chair of League of Filipino Students, described them, they are “recycled” government technocrats that “have long pursued the policy of limiting the role of government in the delivery of social services and access to basic infrastructure such as electricity, water and petroleum products.”
With such people at the helm, “change for the worse” seems to loom over ordinary Filipinos such as the health workers, said Emma Manuel, chair of Alliance of Health Workers, who cited as example the new Health secretary Dr. Enrique Ona.
“We are hoping for change that will move forward, not backward, in terms of providing health for all,” Dr. Geneve Rivera, secretary-general of Health Alliance for Democracy, said in a statement. Dr. Ona was former director of the National Kidney and Transplant Institute (NKTI). His track record there, said Dr Rivera, was marked not just by union-busting but also by pushing heavily for “corporatization of government hospitals and medical tourism, the exact opposite of what the Filipino people urgently need in terms of health care.”
Given Dr. Ona’s ‘expertise’ at running public hospitals like a business for profit, health groups say the message Aquino seems to be saying now is: “If you have money, we have health care for you, if not, sorry for you.”
The new Labor secretary, Rosalinda Baldoz, also caused apprehension to youth groups and labor groups when she issued statements regarding Aquino’s platform on labor and employment, and revealed mere “photocopies from Arroyo’s book.”
A government bureaucrat with the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration long criticized by Migrante for virtually selling off the interests of overseas Filipino workers, Baldoz is now “trying to condition the public,” said Anton Dulce of Anakbayan, into “accepting a continuation of Arroyo’s wage-freeze policy.” This, according to Baldoz, is geared toward attaining “competitiveness” and attracting foreign investments.
Baldoz, according to Garry Martinez, chair of Migrante, was “incompetent in addressing labor-related concerns of OFWs during her time in the POEA.” She botched the labor case of Sentosa nurses, for instance, Martinez said. During Baldoz’ term at the POEA, she led in crafting many anti-migrant policies; she likewise failed to resolve numerous cases of unfair labor practices victimizing OFWs.
As threat to rights and welfare of the country’s working people Baldoz and Dr. Ona are not alone in Aquino’s cabinet, unfortunately.
KMU pointed to other representatives of big businesses in Aquino’s cabinet as the group who will likely block, as usual, the labor’s demand for wage adjustments. Worse, these new officials may not also be depended on in bringing down prices, or keeping the lid on price increases of basic commodities and utilities. Some cabinet appointees, said the group Bayan, hailed direct from Big Business such as Tourism Secretary Alberto Lim of the Makati Business Club; Energy Secretary Jose Rene Almendras who is former president of the Ayala-owned Manila Water, and Transportation and Communication secretary Jose “Ping” de Jesus who is former president and chief operating officer of electricity distributor Meralco and also former PLDT executive vice president.
As if the looming price increases and wage freeze are not enough, a more regressive taxation becomes a big possibility too with Cesar Purisima as Finance Secretary. A proponent of the E-VAT in 2005, Purisima may well continue the onerous taxation binge of the Arroyo regime.
“When Mr. Aquino says Purisima’s credentials speak for themselves, we can’t help but be reminded of the expanded Value-Added Tax (e-VAT) he pushed. Will we be treated to more of the same fiscal policies?” Bayan’s Reyes asked now. Purisima, by the way, is also listed as a big contributor to the Aquino campaign.
Another cabinet official recycled from Arroyo’s is Alberto Romulo, who “never resigned from the Arroyo cabinet and has never shown remorse for the blunders he committed,” said Reyes of Bayan. “He (Romulo) should have been sacked after he was rebuked by the Supreme Court when he allowed the transfer of convicted rapist US Marine Daniel Smith from the Makati City Jail to the US embassy. He’s a member of the VFA cheering-squad, an unapologetic Am-boy,” Reyes said, adding that “Romulo’s track record shows he did not uphold the national interests while in the DFA.”
“The US troops’ continuing and permanent presence in Mindanao under the vague provisions of the VFA violates the Philippine Constitution. Why is the Aquino government not raising a howl over this violation of our sovereignty?” Reyes asked.
Romulo retains his foreign affairs portfolio under Aquino. Migrante also has a mouthful to say not only against Romulo’s consistent failure to protect them overseas, but also against his seeming connivance with host countries and in milking OFWs through exorbitant fees. Migrante said better bilateral agreements with the receiving countries could have averted the worst of their members’ hardships worldwide.
Hoped-for peace is still on shaky ground during Aquino’s first week, but it seems to teeter more on preserving the terror of Arroyo’s Oplan Bantay Laya (OBL) as Aquino has all but promised to give the military everything they need, such as more soldiers and police and higher budget for AFP’s modernization. He has not uttered similar assurances to hire more teachers or increase the education budget, said various youth groups.
Peoples’ organizations have been urging Aquino to speak out against OBL and military rights abuses, but in lieu of his silence, his action speaks louder. Aquino has been “briefed” last month by the new US ambassador Harry Thomas on “anti-terrorism,” the same coinage the military uses for “target enemies” of Oplan Bantay Laya.
Ambassador Harry Thomas has made no secret of consolidating the Philippines in the US interest of facing down China as a growing threat. Last year, a paper has outlined the “security needs” of the Philippines to beef up not only its fighting capability against internal threats such as the communists and secessionists but also outside forces like, say, China.
In sync with that today, Aquino has ordered a “review” of AFP’s needs, to better improve its modernization. Also, the Philippine Army recently bragged about the $8.9 million worth of protective equipment it has received as a grant from the US, under the US Excess Defense Articles Program. The grant, according to Army spokesman Maj. Ronald Alcudia, covers 50,000 Kevlar helmets costing $7.52 million and 1,355 armor vests worth $1.43 million.
The AFP under Aquino has extended its self-imposed deadline of three years more to crush the insurgency, prompting fears of more human rights violations.
Aquino has declared openness to peace negotiations but his defense secretary Voltaire Gazmin seems to be taking it back in demanding that the NPAs must lay down its arms first. Former NDF negotiator and Rep. Satur Ocampo said this demand is “guaranteed to close the door to negotiations.” Gazmin is formerly chief of the army and defense attaché in Washington D.C.
The new AFP chief of staff Ricardo David, meanwhile, is a former Northern Luzon Command (NolCom) chief who has had responsibility in the persistent militarization and harassment of farmers in the Cojuangco-owned Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac. According to KMU, “David’s stint as NolCom chief contrasted with his pronouncements on civilian supremacy. For the longest time, NolCom has kept Luisita highly militarized and dangerous to those vocal against the abusive schemes of the Cojuangco-Aquino family,” KMU’s Lito Ustarez said.
In a nutshell this seems to indicate the style of Aquino administration– mouthing nice statements for change while doing the exact opposite. For instance, “In only its third day, the Aquino regime has already revealed its true stance in regards to the issue of genuine agrarian reform. Instead of addressing farmer grievances, they just forcibly removed the complainants,” Anakbayan national vice-chair Anton Dulce said bitterly in a statement, in the wake of a violent, treacherous dispersal of a peasants’ camp-out at Mendiola.
“This is unacceptable under the new government who claims to push for change, boasts of being democratic and pro-people. The Aquino government is no different from its predecessor Arroyo regime, implementing same-old fascist tactics to trample on our basic rights,” KMP’s Ramos declared after the dispersal and 42 of the peasant protesters had been hauled off to jail.
“If Aquino is this swift in breaking promises and disappointing the peoples’ expectations, it will be no surprise if he ends up more hated than his predecessor,” youth leader Dulce said.
As Usual, Poverty for the Majority, Super-profits for the Few?
Given the way Aquino has peopled his cabinet, and the way he projects his vision for the economy, it looks like “we are headed for a round-trip to the dark times under Arroyo,” Elmer Labog, chair of KMU, said in a statement.
Just who exactly then is Mr. Aquino’s real boss?
Into his first few weeks as president, it is becoming clear whose interest Aquino would serve more. By categorically stating his inclination “to induce a more vibrant business climate in the country to attract foreign investors,” Aquino has reassured the interests of entrenched big businesses in the country, to the detriment of the working people these interests habitually trample on.
“The US must be very happy for his strong affirmation of neoliberal policies, laying down an economic blueprint which parallels that of his pro-US predecessors,” Labog said.
Leading the clues that these previously proven as bankrupt economic policies would be kept in force is the new NEDA Director-General Cayetano Paderanga, “who fully supported the full liberalization and deregulation of the economy during the Aquino and Ramos administrations that resulted in the further collapse of Philippine agriculture vis-à-vis our South East Asian counterparts,” said Terry Ridon of youth group Anakbayan.
Current Meralco president Jose “Ping” de Jesus, Maynilad Water Services CEO Rogelio “Babes” L. Singson, Manila Water Co. president Jose Rene D. Almendras, all in Aquino’s cabinet, also share the same track record of carrying out full deregulation of water, electricity and oil industries that resulted in the skyrocketing of water, oil, and electricity prices.
The Makati Business Club’s Alberto Lim and retained DFA Sec. Alberto Romulo also “represent the full opening of the Philippine economy to foreign interests, such as the perfection of planned free trade agreements with the United States,” noted Ridon of Anakbayan.
“Most surely, these moves that intend to allow more foreign access to our economy, will only mean more wage cuts, contractualization and job massacres. Foreign firms are always the first to block any wage increase, to push for massive contractualization and outsourcing schemes, and to cry ‘crisis’ and cost-cutting’ as excuses for retrenchments. The Philippines have always been fertile ground for their needed ‘cheapest labor’ to maintain growth of their profits,” Roger Soluta, KMU secretary general, said in a statement.
It is not just the Philippine human resources but also its natural resources that are being lined up by Aquino for continued plunder of the few. Leading the charge to the country’s resources is the new environment secretary, Mr. Ramon Paje.
Like former secretary Horacio Ramos whose near-retention as environment secretary was resisted by environmentalists and the church, “Mr. Paje is one of the mining czars of the Arroyo administration in promoting and implementing mining liberalization in the country. The Minerals Development Council (MDC) which he heads facilitates the selling and privatization of mineral facilities and lands in the country. One of which is the gold-rich Mt. Diwalwal area in Campostela Valley, Davao del Norte,” said Clemente Bautista Jr. of environmental group Kalikasan-PNE.
It thus seems more likely that under Aquino, farmers and indigenous people would continue to be displaced from their lands in the name of large-scale mining and “environmental projects.” The drive for bio-fuels, which happens to be another US government priority here as declared by its new ambassador Harry K. Thomas, has already caused the displacement and fierce land struggles involving hundreds of farming families under the Arroyo government.
Mining liberalization is one of the priority economic policies of the previous Arroyo administration. The DENR now under mining czar Paje has identified 63 priority mining projects, most of which are foreign-owned. Based on the DENR record, there are 545 approved mining agreements covering more than 700,000 hectares of mineral lands as of December 2009.
As Aquino’s pronouncements and appointees suggest, his administration is unfolding into just another sequel in the poverty-inducing saga of implementing neo-liberal policies in the Philippines. The youth group Anakbayan, a sector who by inclination should have been more optimistic, “posits that the continuation of these economic policies” and these kind of appointees “might prevent Mr. Aquino from completely delivering on his promises of change in the next six years. (Bulatlat.com)